Skepticism

AI: Sci Fi Accuracy

I’m a big fan of classic Sci Fi – the older the better. H G Wells, John Wyndham, etc. I’m currently reading the John Carter of Mars books, and am very amused at how science has corrected ‘knowledge’ that informed such work, e.g. the presence of canals on Mars. But I know some people who get mad at bad science in sci fi, to the point that they’ll avoid anything where the science is ropey. I don’t much care if space is silent, I enjoy the KERBLAMMO!

Are you a purist for the science in sci fi?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

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45 Comments

  1. In my books, I prefer accuracy (unless the writer is clearly doing something for the sake of a good story, in which case I can dig it, or if it’s an old book and the writer was using the best science of their day, in which case I find it really interesting).

    In television and movies, it really depends. I found the many, many breaches of the laws of physics in the recent Star Trek movie to be amusing, but not so annoying. On most shows, I just kind of chuck accuracy providing that they are not actively giving misinformation (so, if they are saying things that are known to be false, rather than just making things up for storytelling, that bothers me). even then, the degree to which the misinformation bothers me depends on A) how close it is to my own pet interests, and B) how dangerous it is (giving out misinformation about health care bothers me more than misinformation about stellar distances).

  2. Well you do have to take some liberties with the known science (extend what we do know or change or invent something) if you didn’t then it wouldn’t be fiction would it?

    I do believe that the most thought provoking science fiction is that where the science lies only just outside what we already know.

  3. It depends on how it’s presented I suppose. Star Wars for example makes no pretense at being based in real science, so I don’t hold them to the same sort of standard I would something like an adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s work (sure, the movie producer may not care about accuracy, but Heinlein for all his other faults put a fair amount of effort into scientific plausibility).

  4. I tend to waffle around on what I want. Or rather, how hard the sci-fi is that I want. I tend to just want internal consistency. If a work establishes how something works in one place, I expect it to be consistent throughout the work.

    As of late I’ve been on a hard sci-fi bent as I read the A Time Odyssey trilogy by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter.

    I quite enjoyed the sci-fi aspects of District 9 and Avatar, while I disliked the forsaking of sci-fi tropes in Transformers 2 (seriously, the technology for the Autobots/Decepticons could’ve been done *so* much better).

  5. I don’t care too much about accuracy, I just find it interesting how easy it is to date a story while reading it, assuming you don’t know already. The facts taken for granted at times change, what the trendy technology of the day changes, attitudes toward women change quickly, and what kinds of futures people dream of change.

    So I like accuracy, but sometimes you need a MacGuffin to tell a story, and I’ll just accept it. I just dislike a bunch of jargon thrown around to try and explain something implausible. Leave it to the scienticians.

  6. When I choose books I want the science to have a certain amount of verisimilitude. I find bad science too distracting to tolerate. Fortunately there is no shortage of good SF books.

    In movies I’ve pretty much stopped watching SF because the science is so bad. I made an exception for the recent Star Trek and it made my head hurt. I did just watch a really good SF movie called _The Man from Earth_. I highly recommend it.

  7. In a lot of ways, I’m in agreement with the late Gene Roddenberry; the story is the important thing. Science has been fudged in popular entertainment since long before that, though. Whether it was because it was poorly understood or intentionally misrepresented, science has taken a drubbing for a long time. Spider-Man’s powers came from a radioactive spider. Yet he’s one of the most popular characters in science fiction (and yes, Spider-Man is science fiction).
    Like so many other things you read, you have to take science fictional stories with a grain of salt. If they get it wrong, but it was for the sake of the story, then I can understand that, suspend disbelief, and enjoy the ride.
    However.
    If they just plain come out with “And gravity can be focused like a laser; a ‘gravity laser,’ and it’s just in the story because we thought it would be cool if the bad guy had one,” that’s a telling point that what you’re experiencing there is some bad science fiction. Especially when people that don’t know how gravity works start telling me how cool that is, and it’d really work, and why hasn’t anyone done any research into that.

  8. I’m a purist for the fiction in my sci-fi, if I cared that much about accuracy, I’d be reading textbooks and journals.

    Becoming a fan of sci-fi from starting out as a fan of fantasy, and considering it just another sub-genre of fantasy (and I’m fully prepared to be lynched for expressing that), I care much more about the story than the props and setting. Is it a compelling and/or entertaining story? Do I enjoy, if not like, the characters? These are the questions I worry about, not “How does the FTL work since Relativity says it can’t?”

    That said, I also look for internal consistency, if your fictional world wants to rewrite the basic laws of physics, or even just tweak the abilities of technology, that’s cool with me as long as you apply the same rules through-out the fictional world.

  9. ooooh.. ERB ‘the princess of mars’ remembering that harkens me back to the 8th grade! read the entire series in about a week.

    nowadays, i prefer a bit of science with my fiction: Clark, Asimov…Niven/Pournelle.

    Every once in a while i will try to completely escape and go for Heinlein. tho i think i have read everything by all of the above authors.

  10. I don’t think Sci Fi has to always be “realistic”. There’s a comedian I saw once who did a routine on how if all films had to be realistic, Spiderman would be more likely to end with Peter Parker dying a horrible death from radiation poisoning. He’s exaggerating of course, but the point is a valid one – if you enjoy the story, it doesn’t matter if it’s realistic one.

  11. I’m more in favor of a good story with captivating characters. My awareness of real science as used (or abused) in the story may be limited and the glaring mistakes I can usually hand-wave away as long as I am enjoying the story. Still, I really like reading reviews from scientists regarding the science shown in the story. Phil Plait’s review of Star Trek and several blog posts regarding Avatar have only served to increase my understanding of certain concepts.

    Also, my favorite course in college was called “The Science of Science Fiction” where we were assigned to read science fiction stories and then discuss the scientific principles therein. Maybe this is where I get my ability to disjoin the two. Read/see first, then later analyze.

  12. Tracey, you’ve put a big warm childhood memory smile on my face. The John Carter books were probably the first SciFi books I read in my early adolescence. I recall in one of the books there was a great bit about a flesh reconstruction machines that either cloned new body parts for a warrior species or whole new bodies from big lumps of nondescript flesh. Not sure how accurate that thirty five plus year old memory is. I also recall the women laid eggs and no one could best John with a sword! I consider Dune and the Foundation trilogy classis and have very fond memories of them. And while I like good science I don’t mind the truly fiction bits in most SciFi. There really is no way most SciFi stories could be managed without some level of disbelief.

  13. I’m in favour of internal consistency, as well. Sometimes, when the science is idiotish, I get annoyed, but I get annoyed at idiotish things in other movies, from bad research to sudden character deviations for no good reason. I’m perfectly happy to accept wormholes, faster-than-light travel, various psionic powers, etc. – as long as their “science” is well thought out.

    My ex worked briefly on the Disney movie Black Hole, before it was shut down for a complete rewrite. He had to explain to one of the writers that a spectrograph was an object that actually existed, and said writer could not use the name for a weapon, because that would be ridiculous. Not, however, as ridiculous as the subsequently deleted line “I’m searching for dead stars, because the more dead stars I find, the better my chances are for finding one that’s still alive”.

  14. I love a good story. It is nice if the science is plausible but I’m readind Science Fiction for a good story. I still love the old pulp science fiction story. I am rereading Asimov’s before the golden age. I don’t think a lot of those authors understood that there is a difference between sceince and magic. But the stories are a hoot.

  15. There’s nothing wrong with liking both.
    I find that if the book or film is decent in other respects, I enjoy it. I love hard SF and Barsoomian trash too. Laser guns and rocket planes are good.

    Things which try to explain nonsense in scientific terms grind my gears. Like in Heroes, where every few episodes they try to explain people flying with words like “evolution” and “gene”. That pisses me off and takes me out of the story.

    Did you notice that (apart from being That Other Film By Disney) Avatar was basically John Carter’s Mars?

    Actually, thinking about it, I only like good hard SF from anything in the last 40 years or so. Mordern inaccurate stuff sucks. The slightly archaic style of writing from way back when could get away with a lot more – fill up the sahara to make another ocean? No problem.

  16. Internal consistency is a must for me, but that applies to fantasy just as well (its one of the reasons I like Brandon Sanderson actually, he produces really detailed and consistent magical systems for his books).

    I’m OK with handwaving in Science Fiction, but you should only do it with purpose. Have a good story reason to loosen the rules. Accidental bad science really bothers me, it shows a lack of concern for research.

    Now bad economics, that really bothers me ;)

  17. I hate bad science that wouldn’t change anything if it was good. I also assume that I’m not that special and I don’t know that much (no degree in hard sciences here) and that if I know that it is wrong it couldn’t have been that hard for someone else in the editing process to have gone hmmm did you double check that?

    I’m much more willing to be forgiving if it is in a movie or audio book because it is more difficult to go back and rewatch/listen to and I’m not as likely to stew over something rereading a bad bit of science over and over until I have to dump a book 50 pages in. My one New Years resolution was to stop reading fiction and only listen to it as audio and only read non-fiction. I hope that it will make me a happier less cranky reader.

  18. It’s called Science Fiction.

    Notice the Fiction part?

    I do appreciate when they do get the science right, especially some thing many others don’t, and it may make a film better, but mainly, it’s frelling fiction. not science fact.

  19. I actually love bad science in movies and television. I find it really funny. That’s probably the main reason I still watch Heroes. And now Fringe is doing an excellent job in that regard. Though Mission to Mars is my personal favorite for bad science.

    But one of my friends is also a big science nerd, and bad science just completely ruins things for her. It was strong enough to even overpower Joshua Jackson’s hotness in Fringe.

    On some level, I can certainly understand where she’s coming from. It’s pretty bad that writers can just assume the audience will be completely ignorant of basic scientific facts. Just throw a bunch of science-y words together. That’s good enough.

  20. Bad science on sci-fi bothers me quite a lot, but not all of it… When you watch sci-fi there are some things that you just have accept as part of the story (like time travel or faster-than-light travel), those kinds of things don’t bother me, but other than that bad science annoys me (like sound in space), but I get even more annoyed by lack of internal consistency… And I love reading sci-fi reviews by scientists too…

  21. As others have said internal consistency is very important.

    I am ok with them making things look cool for the sake of looking cool, but if you’re gonna talk about why your ship is covered in spikes you better have a damn good reason for A) covering it in spikes and B) mentioning the spikes. Otherwise, please, don’t bother.

  22. Scientific accuracy is important, and I love hard science fiction in books, and I wish more great hard science fiction was made into decent television and movies.

    However, I’m a fair hand at suspending disbelief and some of the typical scientific travesties I find generally forgivable: Faster than light travel, and artificial gravity on space ships, for example.

    I love Doctor Who, and that really isn’t science fiction at all. It’s fantasy that’s gone to the craft store and bought the faux science fiction patina-in-a-bottle. Usually I enjoy the episodes anyway, but DW is really an exception. There’s no other show that comes remotely close to that level of nonsense that I like.

  23. balookey makes a good point in distinguishing between science fiction and fantasy. I have always been a big Star Wars fan (the original trilogy, anyway. In my world, the new trilogy doesn’t exist). Star Wars is classified as sci-fi, but (the original trilogy) feels more like a tale of fantasy and magic. In such a world, the Death Star makes a loud boom when it explodes in space. And that’s the way it should be.

  24. When it comes to entertainment I am not a purest. I believe in the concept of “suspension” of disbelief. BUTTTTTT … if science is accurately or plausibly represented in film, TV, stage or books then I am much more engaged and that much more impressed.

  25. As pretty much everyone else here has said, the quality of the story is the most important part. Aside from that, I get bugged by noise in outer space (but, on the other hand, I really enjoy/appreciate movies/shows where they have silent space scenes…)

    What bugs me the most is when they go out of their way to explain something, and then do a crap job of explaining it. I would rather it just remain unaddressed altogether, and just accepted as the way things are – something I really liked about ‘Children of Men’ (just the movie, haven’t read the book) and ‘The Road’ (just the book, haven’t watched the movie (yet).

  26. For me it depends. I can ignore some things but not others. Things like explosions in space and faster than light travel are neccesary to keep things interesting. If a scifi movie/book/whatever is full of physical impossibilities and fantasy elements like, say, Star Wars, I can categorize it as fantasy and enjoy the movie. If a movie tries to be hard scifi, but makes glaring mistakes like the closed system created by the human breeding and feeding mechanism in The Matrix that should self destruct due to entropy, it’ll annoy me, but I can still enjoy the movie. However, when a movie/show/book establishes the physical rules of their universe and then blatantly ignores them, such as The Master from Doctor Who being on his 15th or 16th regeneration despite the fact that Timelords are only supposed to be able to regenerate 12 times, I just get pissed off.

  27. Also, I second DaveW’s suggestion of The Man From Earth. Despite the fact that the entire movie is set in one room, and is just a group of people having a conversation, I couldn’t tear myself away from it. I’ve watched it several times since I discovered it on Netflix a year ago.

  28. Internal consistency is important of course. And I prefer that the scientific errors not be blatant. I much prefer that my “willing suspension of disbelief” not be saying “I’ll just ignore that gaff”, but rather say “Is that right? I won’t think about that now.”

  29. I can be very forgiving of bad science. But if it gets too bad, then it gets on my nerves.

    It’s early in the morning here, so the first movie that comes to my mind is about a supersonic airliner that accidentally ends up in orbit. I’ll grand some leeway because the plane probably should have exploded due to the internal pressure of the craft. I’m not an engineer, so I could be wrong.

    When they have a Space Shuttle landing and launching about five or six times in a single day, that’s just too much for me.

  30. I can generally accept unscientific things, until they try to explain them. “We get to hyperspace.” No problem. “We need phlebetonium to power our trip to hyperspace.” Not too bad. “Phlebetonium powers our trip to hyperspace through its quantum fluctuations.” Stop. Find a scientist. Collaborate. Listen.

  31. It depends, some things annoy me, some things don’t. And what those things are change. I’m certain there are books I’ve read and enjoyed that’d piss me off today.

    Catherine Asaro’s Skolian Empire saga for instance. I liked it at first, but at a later point the basic premises, and the attempts at “explaining” them started to annoy me.

  32. I try to remember that a movie is just a movie, if they get the science right, great, if they get it very wrong, I’m annoyed but I’ll live. When they get it slightly wrong is when I’m the most annoyed, things like measuring time in “light years”

  33. For me, it depends on the extent of the “badness”.
    Levels on that of “Armageddon” real get to me. Movies presented on the SyFy channel seem notorious for this.
    The science of the various “Star Trek” episodes doesn’t bother me much, though at times I do find it laughable (example; in ST: Voyager, I’ve seen episode in which they’re looking for deuterium. The search goes awary. I think to myself “Just find a gas giant and suck in some of it’s atmosphere!”).
    Some of the more far out science in shows like “Doctor Who” doesn’t seem so bad to me, even if it is often silly.
    I guess it’s a matter of presentation. H.G Wells shows the way, IMO, with works like “The Time Machine” and “The First Men in the Moon”.

  34. My family says I go too far with scientific accuracy. For example, when Superman was in outer space, “listening” to people on Earth, I pointed out that sound can’t carry in a vacuum. They thought that since I could suspend belief in Superman’s other powers, I should be able to overlook this little point. :)

  35. Without faster-than-light of some form there wouldn’t be much space-based scifi, so I can’t be too much of a purist. That said, I admire John Wyndham’s style for sticking to the known possibles pretty much (his story Re-Birth was one of my fave adolescent reads), and Treknobabble frequently makes me cringe. Best to leave more details to the imagination than to write nonsense.

  36. I have read this blog for a while, but had to register especially to comment, this subject gets to me quite a bit!

    I have lots of things to say, but I find it difficult to make them arrange themselves coherently, but here goes:

    I want some SCIENCE in my SCIENCE Fiction, or I would be go to a different genre, and I don’t necessarily mean hours worth of discussions of equations, or the inner workings of how an alien can survive without having evolved intestines, but I don’t want to see things contradicting basic high school science lessons and please can we have better endings than Jeff Goldblum destroying an entire civilisation with what, IIRC was a 1990s Amiga virus. Yes the story and characters should come first, but realism and research don’t have to be far behind!

    Poor research or ignoring established facts is lazy, sure no real people die if some writer/producer doesn’t understand thermodynamics, or gravity, and its not as important as a lot of sceptical/skeptical topics, but films and books are expensive and I don’t like writers phoning it in in any genre, I don’t want Mr Darcy checking his iCal to see if he is free for luncheon, and I don’t want people in shorts and t-shirts being able to tough out stepping stones over a lava flow without breaking a sweat, or have a palaeontologist lead character that knows less about evolution than I learned from a single Dawkins book!

    And to those people that say “Its FICTION! not a textbook” etc etc I say this:

    If someone was to rent a movie that was billed as Lesbian Porn, and it didn’t have any women in it, and was filled with lots of sexy young men and freshy meaty wang goodness, I dare say they would be disappointed… I say, its still Porn, what does it matter? ;)

  37. Like a lot of people here, it depends. In the case of things like Star Trek, where you have to have transporters because it wouldn’t be Star Trek without transporters, then I can kind of disregard it, throw my suspension of disbelief shields up and wade into the fracas with a bowl of popcorn and a light heart.

    However, my problems with sci-fi are the problems with all movies (and books) in that I expect them to have made a good faith effort to understand the physics of things that are important to the story. It’s not necessary to skimp on reality to make a story good. We enjoy true stories as much as we enjoy fiction, so why should making bollocks out of the laws of physics be something we want to let slide? A disaster movie about the end of the world should have a plausible end of the world and a rational solution. It doesn’t take that much to figure out a good one. Star Trek takes a lot of liberties with the theoretical sciences, and that’s okay… but when they get things like how things behave in zero gravity wrong or how long it takes a compartment to depressurize when the wall is suddenly missing, I wince. Those are grade-school mistakes and there’s no excuse for making them.

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